When 29-year-old filmmaker Bhargav Saikia began to work on a film based on Ruskin Bond’s short story, The Black Cat, he was struck with only one name who could play the famed author — Tom Alter. The actor, who passed away last week, was also Bond’s longtime friend and neighbour in Landour. “I had read this story in school. And when I decided to turn it into a film, Tom Alter was the only actor who came to my mind,” says Saikia. “ When I first met him (Alter) and narrated the script he was very excited. He improvised and came up with the idea of addressing the character as Mr Bond. He was keen to not mimic Ruskin Bond, but present his own interpretation of the writer,” adds Saikia.
The short film, which is doing the rounds of festivals, and was recently screened at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival in Guwahati, has Alter essaying Bond’s role, while the mystique-riddled Miss Bellows is played by Shernaz Patel.There is also a broomstick thrown in the mix along with the eponymous black cat, which mysteriously appears on the doorstep of Bond’s cottage. How the cat, the broomstick and Miss Bellows throw the otherwise sedate life of the writer in disarray, is the rest of the story.
But before Saikia was keen on Alter, he was fixated on Bond. He fondly recalls his meeting with India’s favourite storyteller — a meeting that was slotted for 30 minutes, but went on for three hours, where horror, ghosts and Vishal Bhardwaj were discussed at length. “It was very difficult to establish contact with him. He doesn’t have a mobile phone. But finally I met him at his house in Landour. He maintains that he has never seen any ghosts, and they only exist in his imagination, and also that he thinks that his ghosts are a bit too friendly to be scary,” says Saikia.
The film opens to what must be a daily occurrence in Ruskin Bond’s very organised life — him walking around Mussoorie, visiting antique shops and finding restless shopkeepers who ask about his next book. The film was shot for about a week in Nainital, while some indoor scenes were done in Mumbai. “Before we started the shoot, Tom sir was just wrapping his theatre festival — ‘Jashn-e-Maazhi’ in Mumbai — where he had been performing incessantly for many days. Instead of resting, he came for the shoot. He had such energy and warmth on the sets and there was so much to learn from him. Him being on the shoot was like a masterclass in acting and cinema,” says Saikia, who adds that there was a lot of carmaderie on the sets. “It was thanks to Shernaz and Alter’s association, which went way back,” he adds.
Saikia, who grew up in Assam, was always fascinated by the macabre and the fantastic. “The credit for everything fantasy and dark goes to my English teacher in school. He used to make us do stage productions based on literary works. I have played Mr Fox from Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. That’s where this genre of ghosts and the unexplained took hold of me,” shares Saikia, who went to Manchester to study molecular biology post high school in Guwahati. He returned to India in 2010 and enrolled at Subhash Ghai’s film school, Whistling Woods, which he quit three semesters into the course and produced his maiden venture, Kaafiron Ki Namaaz (2013).
This was followed by Awakening (2015), based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, where Saikia tread the familiar territory of horror and made a film about a woman who was haunted by two children. The film was screened at many genre-specific film festivals around the globe. “When I was attending these film festivals, I was blown away by the kind of cinema being made in the short film genre. That’s when I decided that whatever I do next , I shall push the envelope. The result is The Black Cat,” adds Saikia.
The Black Cat was screened at the fourth annual FilmQuest Festival in Utah, USA, last month. “It is sad that not many Ruskin Bond stories have been adapted. There is only one Vishal Bhardwaj who made The Blue Umbrella, and Saat Khoon Maaf. We really are lacking in terms of visionary filmmakers. I want to rectify that. I am in talks with Mr Bond, for adapting his works for a web-series. I am super excited about that,” says Saikia, who also wants to create an Assamese horror film.